King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword contains, maybe, 40 or 50 minutes of a very good film. Sadly, though, the thing lasts a good two hours.
Charlie Hunnam is Arthur, the Born King, orphaned by his very, very bad uncle Vortigern, played with insufficient badness by Jude Law. Sent away from Camelot by Uncle V after the latter has killed Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s dad, Arthur is raised in a brothel in the mock-Roman town of Londinium before he’s brought to Camelot, along with all other similarly-aged men, to see if he’s capable of puling a mysterious sword out of a similarly mysterious stone. And this is where the film could have been, in classic Guy Ritchie fashion, a tasty little number, a bit of a caper about a dodgy geezer called Arfur wot has a nice little earner going on, lightening the pockets of passing vikings.
Given that KA:LOTS is, clearly, an origins story — the first, apparently, of half a dozen Arthurs Ritchie has lined up — a lot more time spent on Arthur’s origins, his back story in the back streets of old Londinium town, would have been wonderfully entertaining, because this is where Ritchie makes his mark, and where the film, occasionally, soars. When the local commander of the blacklegs, Vortigern’s SS (the 30s-era Germany references aren’t dreadfully subtle), wants to know what Arthur was doing talking with Vikings, Ritchie offers a whipcrack-sharp zip of editing as Arthur tells his tale, and he teases us with what this film could, and should, have been — a tight, taut romp with the verve and character of a Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, the film for which Ritchie will always be know and by which all his further efforts will always be judged.
And, sadly, judged against that standard, KA:LOTS is found wanting. The acting is, at best, adequate — Law, capable of so much better, phones in his malevolence, while Hunnam, a geordie trying to sound like a gor-blimey Ritchie geezer, sounds during some speeches as though, to judge from both delivery and accent, English might not be his first, or possibly even his second, language. Even David Beckham — yes, that David Beckham — making a brief appearance as a member of the blacklegs, one of the few who doesn’t have to wear a Friday-The-13th ice-hockey mask, manages to sound more convincing. And while Beckham is a very, very odd piece of casting, let us not forget that Ritchie has form in this department, having brought ex-Wimbledon FC bollock-cruncher Vinnie Jones to the screen in LSATSB and Snatch.
And then there’s Game Of Thrones. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to makers of, well, just about any film that’s set in castles, has battles for crowns and features magic, but the comparison is inevitable, and rare is the filmmaker who acquits himself well. King Arthur is a PG version of GOT in many ways — sanitised violence, precious little swearing and scrupulously-avoided nudity, but featuring a castle, a beheading (well, nearly) that strongly brings to mind a spoiler-tastic scene in series one of GOT, and, indeed, Lord Baelish. Aidan Gillen shows up as Goatfat Bill, bringing his questionable accent, one which has been known to cross the Irish Sea up to five times in a single word, with him, and, sadly, he’s unmistakably Baelish here as well. Altogether more impressive is Michael McElhatton as Jack’s Eye, the blackleg captain, who offers perhaps the strongest performance in the film, dialing back the controlled malice of Roose Bolton in GOT to offer a nastier, rougher piece of thuggery.
Aside from swearing, violence and boobs, the other thing that Game Of Thrones has that King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword lacks is a tight, coherent and internally-consistent plot. There’s enough — just — to enjoy in King Arthur that you can just about overlook the many — and there are many, oh, so many — plot holes. Don’t ask yourself why Merlin, one of, one would have thought, the tentpoles of any telling of the King Arthur legend, is mentioned once, in passing, and then never even referred to again. Try to not worry about why the Mages are so invested in Arthur escaping. Certainly don’t fret about the big, slithery octopus-mermaid things that live under Camelot. It’s better that way.
Guy Ritchie is capable of much better than this. He has shown himself, more than once, to be a creative, innovative and very stylish film-maker. And when, briefly, we caught glimpses of his talent in King Arthur, it only served to remind us of what this film should have been.